"The Needs of the Many" and "The Needs of the Few"
Joy L. Hart and Shirley Willihnganz
Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock may debate the logic (or lack thereof) in the facets of this paper's title. We, however, are going to argue (as fan of the Enterprise already know and Kirk and Spock implicitly recognize too) that an integration of these perspectives is often the best position. Our focus rests in examination of the results of organizational inquiries and what they have to offer to practitioners and workers in such contexts.
Certainly, much knowledge has been gained across multiple years of examining organizational life (from communication, management, sociology, psychology, and other perspectives), and our intention is not to dispute the important gains which have been made. Rather, what we intend to do is to examine vantage point, as well as potential traps, limitations, new ways of gaining information, and means by which the knowledge we produce can be more useful to practitioners and workers. This perspective clearly fits within Rogue Scholar views as it calls for disseminating our messages to wider audiences in more understandable ways -- thus, focusing on "the needs of the many."
Certainly, scholars stand to benefit from such dissemination as well. Feedback can certainly help us refine our theories or develop new ones. More input from workers across diverse kinds of organizations will allow us to gain a clearer picture of daily work life. And given some of the limitations in our current theories of organizational life, it is little wonder that we may appear "alien" when talking with practitioners and workers about our research and findings or in making recommendations to organizations. Toward this end, we examine below some areas where additional attention is needed.
Despite some examples to the contrary, the vast bulk of the research on organizations has assumed (and continues to assume) that these entities are healthy, run by "rational" managers, with clear and interpretable goals, and who govern fairly and ethically. Although most of us can cite at least a few conflicting instances from our own work lives, in general we continue to proceed from these vantage points.
For example, most work examining organizations assumes rational decision making, and further that there is some set of relatively clear organizational goals according to which such decision making takes place. Although some recent models suggest alternatives to rational decision making (e.g., garbage can models), for the most part organizational researchers and trainers have still continued to proceed from "rationality" assumptions. The same holds true for others areas of organizational life.
In a similar vein, most of our research, as well as descriptions given in training sessions, suggests that conflict is "rational," can be managed rationally if we and others will just "behave well," and ignores or downplays the emotional dimensions. In addition to conflict, we've virtually ignored the multiple "emotional" dimensions of our functioning in organizations. Such downplaying and overlooking makes many of our descriptions, analyses, and recommendations "alien" to those enmeshed in particular organizational realities.
Likewise, our work is dominated by similar assumptions regarding group functioning, identity issues, the clarity of communication, the uses of communication channels and technologies, and often even the competence of those in leadership positions. Certainly, we need to do more in the way of questioning these basic assumptions and listening to the stories of workers regarding these areas of communicative functioning at work. Through such processes, we can become better informed, refine theories, develop new theories, and provide useful insights into organizational communication issues.
Recently, a colleague was complaining about an organizational decision at his institution. The overall story was that upper administration made a decision which in this person's opinion was simply not workable in the classroom. This particular story was wrapped in specifics of outreach programs, course scheduling, use of faculty time, employment of resources, etc. But separate from these specifics, we bet this story is not an unfamiliar one to most people at this conference. And we'd wager that it is not an unfamiliar one in general. But it was frustrating for this colleague, and he suggested that it was due to the specific incompetency within his particular organization. Although such incompetency is a possible part of an explanation, we'd argue that the problem is more likely a simple (Occam's Razor), common, and ongoing one -- more often heard in another context -- the bosses don't really know what the line workers are doing and that workers on the front lines know much more about how to do their jobs (and what might and might not work) than individuals several levels up the hierarchy. Although we doubt can we can ever take the frustration out of such occurrences, it might help most all of us to recognize the common nature of goal incompatibilities, differences in kinds of information possessed by differing groups, processes by which decisions are made, etc. Clearly, some strides toward these ends have been made in organizational sciences, but at most we've uncovered the "tip of the iceberg."
A related area is something loosely labeled "management by neat idea." This label captures the notion that individuals in organizations are often captivated by particular ideas and desirous of possible positive outcomes. Sometimes (often even) managers have the tendency to implement new modes of functioning (TQM, teamwork) without really thinking through ways of making the approach work, what the negatives of the approach will be, how people will respond to the approach, whether or not they or others have the skills to bring about such change, what the impact on the organization's culture might be, etc.
Despite recognizing the "management by neat idea" tendencies of many organizations, relatively few of us really work to translate our ideas and findings for mass consumption. Certainly, there are trade publications, more practically- oriented journals, training opportunities, etc. But beyond some limited use of these outlets, few of us have done much to encourage initial consumption and increased consideration of potentially useful ideas we've discovered along these lines or caveats we might have about their application.
It is our belief that more open dialogue between academics, practitioners, and workers can be of benefit to all parties. Such dialogue can occur in many ways -- during the research process, in the communication of findings, in written reports, through speeches, during training sessions, in general conversations, etc. The Rogue Scholars Web Site is one example of such communication.
The Rogue Scholars call is multifold -- continued production of scholarship, additional emphasis devoted to means of appropriate application, increased dissemination of ideas, and encouragement of participation from multiple parties. This quest involves more focus on "the needs of the many. "Even if SSCA is well attended this year, still there are few of us here. Even the papers here and elsewhere that make it into journals will be few. And studies show that the number of people reading these is few. Without diminishing the import of these audiences, Rogue Scholars call for a widening of the information net. We believe this widening holds potential benefit for the scholar, the manager, and the average worker alike. Let us, as a discipline, boldly go where the knowledge we produce can be applied, open dialogues are encouraged, and our continued learning is at least one vehicle capable of transport.